What Does the Pope’s Climate Encyclical Mean?

, former science communication officer | June 18, 2015, 4:44 pm EDT
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Pope Francis released his much-anticipated encyclical on humans’ stewardship of our planet earlier today. While my colleagues and I spend most of our time talking about science and policy, the pope’s message has given us an opportunity to reflect on our own moral reasoning around climate and energy issues as well as the intersection of faith and science.

Update, June 23: My colleague Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst, added his thoughts in a separate post about Pope Francis’s plug for electric co-cops and other clean energy issues in the encyclical.

A cover image for the encyclical, which depicts St. Francis, who offered a prayer to nature ("Praised Be") for which the encyclical is named.

A cover image for the encyclical, which depicts St. Francis, who offered a prayer to nature (“Praised Be”) for which the encyclical is named. Source: The Vatican

It’s refreshing to see a world leader – in this case a head of church and state – ably and accurately reflect scientific research as he also makes a moral argument for policy action. The Pope’s message was based on robust advice from scientists and other experts. That fact hopefully won’t be lost on the many people who may wonder why a religious leader is weighing in a topic that is so closely associated with science.

While there is much perceived conflict between religion and science in public life, there simply doesn’t have to be. I’ve met enough religious scientists and religious leaders who work with scientists to know.

As Angela Anderson, the director of our climate and energy program noted last week, “I have never felt there was a disconnect between my Christian faith and my work for what scientists have told us about our planet – and neither does Pope Francis, who not only received a technical degree in chemistry, but has also benefited from a Vatican convening of scientists and social scientists to inform the forthcoming encyclical.”

At the same time, we all make moral and value judgments every day, including scientists and other academic experts. As NASA’s Gavin Schmidt has argued, it’s fitting and proper to talk about them.

In that spirit, here are a few more reactions from my colleagues I wanted to share. If you have some more thoughts on Pope Francis’s message, please share them in the comments below.

Climate change presents significant moral choices

A stark depiction of how climate-altering emission have largely originated from industrial activities in the developed world, while the consequences of climate change are expected to fall disproportionately on people in the developing world. Source: SkepticalScience.com

Rachel Cleetus, UCS’s lead economist and climate policy manager, reflected on the ways in which the consequences of climate change will disproportionately affect people around the world.

Like many people today, whether they are people of faith or not, I found myself so moved by Pope Francis’ words. His deep understanding of the science of climate change is clear and compelling. But it is his elevation of the voices of the poor and marginalized that truly sets him apart as a champion for climate equity.

“Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (The emphasis is his.)

As someone who cares deeply about climate change and as someone who grew up in a Catholic family in India — now with family on four continents — I am deeply grateful to this pope for his message to all of us to see climate change as a shared global challenge that goes to the heart of our common humanity.

As a mother, his question: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” speaks directly to what motivates my work in advocating for climate solutions.

I’m sure many of us had this feeling today that even as he was speaking to the world, Pope Francis was also speaking directly to our individual experiences and perspectives. I hope we can come together to reflect and share those thoughts.

Moral and religious perspectives can transcend partisanship

Members of Congress bow their heads in prayer. Source: BeforeItsNews.com

Robert Cowin, government affairs director for our climate and energy program, told me about how religious and moral perspectives might be able to transcend the partisanship that afflicts attitudes toward climate change in many areas of the United States.

People of faith — regardless of which faith — find a common humanity in their relationship with something greater than themselves.  It sustains them and keeps them grounded.  It permeates their value systems, fosters fellowship, and influences their perception of people and events.

Politics and religion are unavoidably linked. But how do we reconcile the Framers’ clear belief that church and state work best separately when matters of science and religion are hopelessly intertwined in public policy, and the laws that Congress makes are themselves the product of moral judgments? I think Pope Francis provided a strong example of the power of spiritual leadership in public service with his encyclical, and this example transcends partisanship.

For instance, in states like Pennsylvania, which are often politically divided on a range of social and economic issues (including climate and energy), the Pope’s leadership on climate change illuminates a way forward, something policymakers including Rick Santorum, Pat Toomey, and other conservative Catholics from the Keystone State should be interested in.

The Catholic Church and the scientific community are speaking loudly with one voice on climate, and if that voice is met with silence by Catholic leaders like Speaker John Boehner, they will have missed a unique opportunity to demonstrate the values that are common to all of us: the values that transcend party and offer us the best of church and state.

Climate change can be a heart-breaker and leaders give us the words we need to say what that means

A young woman who lives in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, which is home to about 10,000 people. Scientists expect many places will become uninhabitable due to climate change as sea levels inundate coastlines and islands and as temperature and humidity rise, making it impossible for people to go outside unprotected for extended periods of time in some parts of the world. Image source: AfricaGreenMedia.co.za

Finally, Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a senior climate analyst who works with coastal communities, including her own, on preparing for climate change sent me an incredibly thoughtful note.

With his encyclical, Pope Francis is hoping to change the world.  For people long in the climate fight, he has already changed ours. And while this moment in history is not about us, it reaches us, shakes us, and gives us a chance to take heart. Laudato Si.

The world is full of broken hearts. They break for love and death and the loss of hope, and many hearts have broken in the face of climate change. I’ve seen them.  And not with a big crack, like at the end of romantic love, but in a crumbling sort of way, over time, into pieces and powders that will never quite go back together again, because there is no “moving on” from the future, only living into it. 

Facing climate change, it turns out, is a lot about letting go. We start grappling with climate change because the things we love most are at stake – people, places, creatures – but as time passes and we struggle to stop it, we find we have to start letting go of the idea that those things can all be saved. Our hearts break not just because of the loss, but because we feel lonely and confused in our grief: why doesn’t everyone care?  By the time the broader world began worrying about the polar bear, millions of us had let Ursus maritimus go. Heads down and hearts dusty.

We can be forgiven. With climate change, we’ve seen morality and humanity shunted aside to nurture some bottom line or another – first, as an abomination (say, mountain top removal and the blotting out of communities and ecosystems), then as a sickening trend, then as an inevitability, from which every manner of madness can flow, almost unremarked on. With climate change, it feels sometimes like there are scarcely words remaining with which to talk about what’s wrong; or that words that matter most – words about impacts on the poor, about animal extinction, about climate tipping points – are heard least.

That the Pope has found words for these things – the madness, the morality, the obligation, the urgency – and called on the world to listen and to act means so much. It’s the 11th hour, later really, and the wins we have had to date are inadequate given the scope of the problem. Today, after months of build-up, his words reached us and I finally realized what they meant, at least to me: help, reinforcements, intervention, a new day.

Nothing but a world of people caring can solve climate change.  Pope Francis has asked the world to care, and I am overcome with gratitude.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags: , , , , ,

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  • People who work on and cover LGBT issues have noted concerns (http://www.advocate.com/politics/religion/2015/06/18/popes-environmental-encyclical-anti-transgender) with the encyclical, as well as previous comments Pope Francis has made.

    Specifically, Pope Francis urges people to accept their own “femininity or masculinity.” He argues that humans can confuse having “absolute power” over their own bodies with having absolute power over creation. He also urges the reader to think about how one’s own body “establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living things.”

    Admittedly, I glossed over these words when I first read them and did not comprehend their significance.

    This passage is problematic for two reasons. First, it treats gender identity, sexual orientation and, indeed, even behaviors that could be construed as discordantly “masculine” or “feminine” as personal choices. Meanwhile, over the past several decades, doctors and public health professionals have overwhelmingly embraced the evidence that people’s sexual orientation and gender identity are innate rather than chosen: while one’s outward expression of gender can be socially constructed – such as the clothes one chooses to wear – one’s core gender identity and sexual orientation cannot. The medical community also understands that discrimination has been and continues to be a public health burden for LGBT people the world over.

    Second, this passage, in particular, struck a nerve with me because the Pope appealed to what the reader might consider ‘natural.’ In this case, I think the passage is not clear about what he considers ‘natural’ from his theological perspective versus what is ‘natural’ from a scientific one. Indeed, science – or at least things that look or sound like science – have long been inappropriately used to marginalize LGBT people on the grounds that their particular humanity is somehow ‘unnatural.’ Further, such fake science has also been used to hold back women, ethnic and racial groups, and people from entire regions of the country and the world. We should never, ever forget that, especially those of us who work in and around science. This is doubly true for people who have not personally suffered from that marginalization (this author included).

    Science is a tool — certainly not the only tool, but a critical one — for understanding our world. It should never be ignored. And it should never be wielded as a cudgel.

    More importantly, one doesn’t need any scientific meta-analyses to draw some basic moral conclusions: our common humanity unites us more than our differences; we should all be equal under the law; and we should strive to treat one another without bias or prejudice. In the same passage, Pope Francis also writes about acceptance and respect; values that can and should trump our biases.

    • I wanted to address another point that has provoked commentary around the encyclical. Pope Francis also wrote that it would be a mistake to “only propose a reduction in the birth rate,” to reduce environmental degradation. Indeed, it’s impossible to view population policy in isolation. My colleagues have written more about this here and include references to organizations that offer deeper dives: http://blog.ucsusa.org/5-things-to-know-about-population-and-heat-trapping-emissions

      I’d also like to thank my colleagues Dave Anderson, Rachel Cleetus, Michael Halpern and Liz Schmitt for talking with me about some of the issues raised here and above. I’m glad the Pope’s message gave us occasion to reflect deeply on our own work as well as related issues.

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  • Art Williams

    UCS should respond to the encyclical by reexamining its iresponsible resistance to next-generation nuclear technology. UCS knows better than most that molten-salt reactors are safe, clean and even less expensive than coal. That is, they are as close to a panacea as we are likely to get.
    Arthur Williams, PhD

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  • Mavis Symonds

    I applaude Pope Francis for contributing to this ongoing discussion, I agree with everything he and others have said in relation to the urgency of the situation and the effect that it will have on those who can least afford to be affected by environmental and other global issues such as housing, unemployment, flooding, earthquakes etc. I am frightened as an Australian that our present government policies and ideologies do not see this as such a threat as most thinking people do. I would love to see our government as leaders working with other countries to encourage the best outcome. While so many communities here are encouraging communities to do simple things like recycling, reducing carbon footprint and creating jobs for unemployed along with education on environment and waste management; I think the global community should be encouraging our country to step up to the plate and literally put their shoulders to the grindstone to make positive, real change. Maybe start listening to the scientists and other people who are aware of what is currently happening including scientists and those people who are suffering environmental tragedies as we speak. I will continue to pray that Pope Francis’s words will find their way to those who have their fingers in their ears and money and power in their hearts.

    • Aubrey

      How many tangible resources has the Pope pledged from the deep, deep coffers of the Catholic church to mitigate climate change? Talk is cheap. Show us the money, Pope, or are we to be the only ones to sacrifice?

      • Richard Solomon

        Point well taken, Aubrey. So, now you, me, and others should write the Pope to urge him to invest the Church’s resources into programs aimed to at least significantly reduce the impact that climate change will have on the world.

      • j2hess

        So, the old anti-Catholic canard that the Church is sitting on great piles of wealth. Most of it is tied up in infrastructure built when dedicating one’s wealth to the glory of God was thought to be a good thing; another big chunk in the cultural inheritance of art and books.

        The Church runs some of the world’s largest charitable organizations already, if you want to see the money. The more important point is that however many billions the Church might be able to assemble selling off land and buildings is not going to have a serious impact as long as we keep doing business as we do. Our economic and business models and environmental resource use must change, and that must come from the hearts and minds of those on the inside. That is the mission of the Church, no matter how often the leaders get it wrong – to teach, that through learning people can decide how to mold their consciences and how they live in the world.

      • Calista

        So, the church isn’t going to pony up, then? That’s what you’re saying? We get it.

  • J.N. Mortimer

    I am very worried this will backfire. We have been accused of behaving like religious zealots as we have promoted climate change politics and now we actually have the Pope overshadowing our position. Worse, the old boy went off the deep end in what amounts to a rant condemning capitalism, economics, successful people of all sorts – politically, commercially and technically. Worse still, he offered not one whit of a clue how all of this authoritarian moral righteousness is to be accomplished (something else we, ourselves, have been accused of). If all that wasn’t enough there is the rather hypocritical optic of the autocratic head of wealthy global Catholicism awkwardly invoking our science to browbeat his affluent secular and nonsecular counterparts – many of whom have generously supported out research and messaging. Our agenda is not helped and there is a very real risk our climate change activism will all too soon be equated in the public mind with creationism, hypocrisy and possibly even pedophilia, thanks to this unsolicited raving Papal ejaculation.

    • Richard Solomon

      Do you think ‘the public mind’ is so shallow that it is incapable of separating out these issues? Creationism, hypocrisy, and pedophilia are indeed very serious flaws in the Church’s perspective on the world. So is its chauvinistic attitudes towards women and its lack of support for the poor people of color in the world. But the public can probably keep these problems in mind while still appreciating and endorsing the Pope’s efforts to lead in regards to climate change. I know that I do.

    • j2hess

      You had me thinking until you made the link with pedophilia and called this encyclical a ‘raving Papal ejaculation”. That made it clear who is raving here, and it’s not Pope Francis!

      Indeed it is silly at best to think that we can separate climate change from the economic structure and cultural context driving it.

      One way of bending the curve without breaking the model is to add representatives of other stakeholders to the directors, as Germany puts representatives of the workers on the board. Who will speak for the environment, for the future?

  • Friday’s_cat

    Pope Francis is under attack by the Conservative Media. They must be worried that people of faith will start to realize that injunction to be a Good Steward isn’t just for Sunday.